Jewish Women’s Hair Covering From Veil to Wig
Orthodox Jewish women abide by the Jewish law, known as Halakha. This code of modesty requires they wear clothing that covers their knees, elbows and collar bone. In addition, according to the collection of Jewish laws and traditions known as the Talmud, since a woman’s hair exudes sensual energy a married woman must also cover her hair to ensure her modesty. The covering of the hair is never intended to make a married woman look ugly, but instead a means of keeping her beauty and attractiveness within marriage where it belongs. In the Orthodox Jewish culture, the married woman, by covering her hair, makes a statement: “I am not available.”
According to historians and anthropologists, respectable women in the ancient Near East, and later in Greece and Rome wore veils when they went outside. The wearing of veils may have been due to fashion or simply to the customs of the times. For the Jews, the covering of the hair might have first been a cultural phenomenon, which eventually became a regulation that Jewish women followed as a religious obligation. Shawls and scarves were the most common head/ hair coverings. By the time of the Middle Ages, the covering of hair was firmly entrenched within the Jewish laws. Interestingly, the first serious challenge to Jewish traditional hair covering occurred in France during the 16th century when the wearing of wigs came into vogue among not only the aristocrats, but also the merchant classes. Jewish women began to emulate this fashion look that was sweeping the French nation. The wearing of a sheitel (wig) initially was denounced by all rabbinic authorities at that time, but eventually was accepted by some rabbis. As more Jewish women started to wear wigs, the more conservative, pious Jewish communities balked at accepting the new custom leading to a controversy within the Jewish community. Although the use of wigs and hairpieces was common for centuries, it was never intended in the Talmud to be a substitute for the covering of a woman’s hair and various well-known rabbis in the 1700’s weighed in both for and against it as a substitute for covering the hair. The more conservative rabbis condemned the wearing of wigs while some rabbis, recognizing the societal mores of their congregations, took a more lenient stance. The conflict over the wearing a wig (sheitel ) as a hair cover versus wearing a shawl, scarf, snood, etc to cover the hair continued from the 1700’s right up to the present day.
Today Conservative and Reform Judaism do not generally require women to wear head coverings, although some more observant Conservative synagogues will ask that married women cover their heads. The most common hair covering for Modern Orthodox women is a hat or beret while younger women often wear baseball caps and bandannas, or colorful scarves when they are casually dressed. In many segments of the modern and Haredi Orthodox communities a style of a half wig known as a “fall” or ¾ cap has become increasingly common, usually worn either with a hat or headband. Before the present advancements in wig cap construction, most Jewish wigs worn by Orthodox Jewish women looked “wiggy.”
Today with increasingly natural looking wigs made from both natural hair and synthetic/ human hair blends along with wig cap constructions that give the illusion of natural hair growing front the front hairline and the part line, the question arises, “What is the difference between wearing a very natural looking Jewish wig, a sheitel, and just natural hair?”
For the Orthodox Jewish woman that is not even the right question to ask. For the married women who wear a sheitel ( Jewish wig), they are making a statement of obeying the Jewish law and creating a psychological barrier, a cognitive distance between themselves and strangers, while still caring for their appearance and looking presentable. In other words, a married, Orthodox Jewish woman can be satisfied by the way she looks without the compromising of her privacy/modesty.
Never the less, some Hasidic sects (a branch of Orthodox Judaism) say that sheitels (Jewish wigs) are to be avoided as they can give the impression that the wearer’s head is uncovered. In some cases, to avoid this misconception, some Jewish women will wear some type of covering over her sheitel (wig), such a scarf. On the other hand, the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged all married Jewish women to wear only sheitels (Jewish wigs). The controversy does not seem to be abating, even in the 21st century. Depending on the interpretation, all of the woman’s hair must be covered or some of the hair must be covered. However, no matter the interpretation, a married woman must wear her hair covered in public and in the company of other men who aren’t her husband or immediate family.
According to Rabbi Rafael Grossman, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the world’s largest body of Orthodox rabbis, ”When the practice of wearing a wig first emerged, there was quite a protest………. A wig would seem to contradict the basic principal of avoiding incitement. But my personal view is that it is acceptable because the rudiments of Halakha only require women not to expose their hair, though a woman should avoid wearing a wig that could appear to be sensual.”
Nevertheless, Orthodox women seem to have embraced the wearing of sheitels (wigs.) In Brooklyn, New York, where there is a large population of Orthodox Jews, at the renowned sheitel store, Claire’s Accuhair, you will find women who have traveled as far away as California and Israel to have beautiful human hair wigs made for them. A ready-made style can start at $1700.00, while a custom hand made wig can easily reach $4,000, depending on length and quality of hair. Another well-known wig atelier is Raffaele Mollica in New York City. His handmade wigs cost anywhere from $2,700 to $3,500 and can take up to a year to make. And as with all human hair wigs, once you have bought the wig, it must be taken to a hair salon to be professionally trimmed and styled. In NYC there are a number of high-end hair salons with amazingly steep prices that cater to Orthodox women and their (sheitels) wigs. Professionals who cut, trim, and style custom wigs frequently spend 2–3 hours to style a wig. After all, there is no margin for error. A “mistake” can’t grow back!
Obviously not all Jewish Orthodox women are able to afford these custom made (sheitels) Jewish wigs, nor high priced hair salons. Via friends, neighbors, family and Jewish chat rooms, many Orthodox Jewish women learn about the best (sheitels) Jewish wig makers and styling salons in and around their neighborhoods. In addition, there are some Internet wig sites that cater to the Orthodox Jewish woman. They advertise that all their sheitels (Jewish wigs) are kosher.
However, a smart alternative to custom made wigs would be selecting a ready made, quality human hair wig from such wig manufacturers as Envy, Jon Renau, Estetica Designs, Raquel Welch, Revlon, and Louis Ferre. The unique Internet wig boutique, prettywighair.com offers numerous styles and we are sure you will find a style that closely resembles your own haircut. A hair professional can then trim and style it to make the sheitel (wig) look just like your own hairstyle so that the transition from your natural hair to a wig is not noticeable. Purchasing human hair wigs is an investment and you want to be thrilled with your choice.
Ultimately, the transition from an unmarried Orthodox woman to a married Orthodox woman is a celebration. Her covered hair whether is it with a sheitel (wig) or a scarf is a declaration of her status as a married Jewish woman. It is a symbol of her strength and commitment not only to her religion, but also to herself.